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WILL WE EVER SEE THE END OF INFORMATION CONTROL IN AZERBAIJAN?

Arzu Qeybulla

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At a meeting of NATO allies in Brussels in November 2017, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev highlighted the importance of free speech and internet freedom.

A summary published on the official presidential website paraphrased Aliyev’s remarks as follows:

“Highlighting democratic development issues, President Ilham Aliyev said the free internet, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other freedoms are ensured in Azerbaijan.”

This and other similar assertions have elicited raised eyebrows from many Azerbaijani journalists. Aliyev’s words are a far cry from his actions over the past five years.

Between 2013 and 2015, a cascade of regulatory changes and arbitrary legal threats put Azerbaijan’s once-vibrant civil society of journalists, activists, and youth organizations in the line of fire. Many were arrested, on bogus charges. Others left the country, out of fear of persecution.

As a result, much of the remaining conversation around democracy, rights and freedoms shifted to the online world. But each year, it becomes ever-more clear that there is not much tolerance for online dissent either.

The latest example came on December 1, 2017, when parliamentarians introduced and adopted a new set of amendments that will hold individuals, officials and legal entities responsible — and subject them to fines — for online dissemination of “banned” information.

If an internet information resource is entered into the List of Information Resources that Have Posted Information Banned from Distribution, it should immediately restrict access to any such information that it contains. Otherwise, the host and internet providers will face fines in the amounts of 1,500-2,000 AZN for officials and 2,000-2,500 AZN for legal entities.

Officials have not indicated how websites that support reader comments or user posts (such as Facebook or YouTube) will comply with these rules, if and when their users post content that falls under the ban

The ban covers a class of content known as “prohibited information,” which was established by a May 2017 court order authorizing the government to censor websites with specific types of content.

As per the court order, “prohibited information” can include the following categories:

  • terrorism propaganda;
  • information promoting religious extremism, revolution, mass riots and other similar propaganda;
  • [information related to] state secrecy;
  • information on production of weapons and spare parts;
  • information on preparation of narcotics, drugs, and similar substances, their sale;
  • pornography (including child pornography);
  • information on promotion of gambling and illegal betting;
  • information on suicide inspiration;
  • insult and defamation as well as information breaching personal security;
  • information breaching intellectual property rights; and
    other information, distribution of which is prohibited by law of the Republic of Azerbaijan

The public prosecutor’s office claimed online resources were blocked for posing a threat — but when we took a closer look at the content shared on these websites, we found that they did not match the criteria for “prohibited information.”

Several of the websites that were blocked primarily featured stories on government corruption, rising suicide rates in Azerbaijan, poor economic and social living conditions, and independent news coverage of local protests. Three news websites and two satellite TV channels were swiftly blocked inside the country. And since then, more than a dozen online resources providing independent news and information have been blocked.

All this begs the question: For whom is this “prohibited information” most threatening?

Indeed, these legal reforms threaten everyone but the ruling elite of Azerbaijan. This is a classic trait of Aliyev’s regime. In the years since he took the presidential throne from his father, Ilham Aliyev has only made the lives of his countrymen more miserable.

It seems that legal reforms in Azerbaijan are never proposed purely out of the goodwill of Azerbaijani parliament members. Although their primary purpose is to serve the public, we as Azerbaijani citizens do not even know for sure whether they were legitimately elected to public office.

And so it was not surprising to see the second wave of legal amendments that were introduced and approved by the Azerbaijani parliament with the end of 2017 approaching. The lawmakers approved amendments to Azerbaijan’s Code of Administrative Offenses, introducing high monetary penalties against owners of the internet information resources or domains for distributing prohibited information (deemed so by the authorities) or failing to prevent dissemination of such information.  December 15, Azerbaijan’s National Parliament approved amendments to the bill on armed forces, prohibiting journalists from seeking certain types of information about military activity.

Organizations and platforms that have been held back by this recent wave of regulatory measures are now increasingly reliant on their Facebook pages and YouTube accounts to keep their voices present online. Many have built mirror websites where they continue covering critical stories and news from Azerbaijan.

Azadliq Radio, the Azerbaijani service for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty updates its readers and viewers at the end of their daily news wrap up, providing an updated URL for their platform. Meydan TV relies on a mobile app.

Describing the fall of free Internet in Azerbaijan, civic activist Ali Novruzov wrote on his blog:

What made the matter worse was that our even hypothetical Internet freedom was not guaranteed in the law books. Loose provisions of the laws were leading to occasional blocking of websites. Aside from some satirical blogs and Iranian-sponsored religious propaganda websites, even Imgur, an innocent photo-sharing platform fell a victim for a short time. However, blocking of websites was an exceptional measure back then. Despite being an arbitrary measure, the government was resorting to it only in selected circumstances.
[…]
With oil prices plummeting and economic situation getting worse on daily basis, it was evident that the government was no longer inclined to tolerate any dissent whether it was online or offline. The days of the hypothetical free Internet were also numbered.
[…]
While curbing basic rights and freedoms, going after activists, are a rule of thumb when it comes to persecution of active members of Azerbaijan’s civil society, polishing of existing laws seem to have made things far easier for the ruling government especially when it needs to answer in front of the international rights watchdogs and institutions. First it is none of their business leaders like to say, even when a pinch of criticism is steered their way, and secondly, we have laws, according to which the authorities lawfully abide by.

These recent legal amendments, as well as the on-going show of power between authorities and Azerbaijan’s crippled civil society, indicate that President Ilham Aliyev’s talking points about free expression and the internet are just words. In Azerbaijan, free and open the internet is not.

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Corruption

UK aims at shady Azerbaijani money – but is it missing the target?

The Azeri Times

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Some have expressed concern that the UK’s first use of the “unexplained wealth order” targeted someone already out of favor with the Azerbaijani government.

The announcement that the wife of an Azerbaijani banker is the first target of British efforts to crack down on foreigners’ illicit wealth was welcomed by good government advocates, but raised concerns that London may only be aiming at figures who are out of favor with their home governments.

On October 10, British media reported that the target of Britain’s first “unexplained wealth order” is Zamira Hajiyeva, the wife of Jahangir Hajiyev, the former head of the International Bank of Azerbaijan. The order is a recently introduced instrument allowing British law enforcement officers to demand explanations when a person’s wealth does not correspond to their declared income. It is aimed at cracking down on the vast amounts of ill-gotten wealth – much of it from the former Soviet Union – parked in London.

There is no shortage of dodgy Azerbaijani money in the UK. The investigation into the “Azerbaijani Laundromat,” for example, found that shell companies based in the UK played a key role in the Azerbaijani political elites’ money-laundering and influence-buying operations.

The Hajiyevs, meanwhile, had already been cast out of the Baku political elite: In 2015, Hajiyev was sentenced by an Azerbaijani court to 15 years in prison for misuse of funds.

The government-friendly Azerbaijani press – not typically a fan of stories about Azerbaijanis falling afoul of investigators in the West – widely reported the news about Hajiyeva. “All of England is talking about Zamira Hajiyeva,” crowed a headline on Haqqin.az, a news site connected to Azerbaijan’s security forces.

Two days before the news broke in the UK, in fact, Haqqin had already reported that Hajiyeva was the target of the order. The story cited the Telegram channel Banksta – a Russian-language channel covering banking affairs – but a sister website of Haqqin, Azeri Daily, had named Hajiyev as early as July.

That Hajiyeva was targeted, out of the many potential subjects of the order, raised some consternation among observers.

“There is an interesting issue with the case of Zamira Hajiyeva,” tweeted Anar Mammadli, an Azerbaijani human rights activist. “After all, she and her husband, Jahangir Hajiyev, are not the first Azerbaijani civil servants to buy property in London. Will the other official-families’ ‘contributions’ to the British economy be investigated? After all, they are not alone!”

“What a can of worms,” tweeted John Heathershaw, a professor at the University of Exeter who studies post-Soviet financial ties with the West. “Many thousands more potential cases. Or are we just going to look at those who have fallen out of favour with their home governments?”
“What a can of worms,” tweeted John Heathershaw, a professor at the University of Exeter who studies post-Soviet financial ties with the West. “Many thousands more potential cases. Or are we just going to look at those who have fallen out of favour with their home governments?”

“Hajiyev and his wife have already fallen foul of the system in Azerbaijan. I don’t imagine the Azerbaijani regime will be overly concerned to see this investigation. Who knows, maybe they even had a hand in triggering the investigation,” tweeted analyst Alex Nice.

“My take on the UWO is that it looks like a missed chance to send a big message,” tweeted Oliver Bullough, a journalist who has extensively covered post-Soviet wealth in the UK. “Jahangir Hajiyev had already been jailed in Azerbaijan so why not use the standard asset recovery route, as with Gulnara Karimova? UWOs are supposed to be for assets that can’t be seized otherwise.”

Nevertheless, the move was welcomed by good government advocates. “UWOs should now be used more widely to pursue more of the £4.4 billion worth of suspicious wealth we have identified across the UK,” Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, told the BBC.

And some in the region wondered if their oligarchs would be next. “It seems that investigators from the National Crime Agency started from the letter ‘A,’” joked Uzbekistani writer Hamid Ismailov on twitter. “Uzbek ‘nouveau riches’ might think that they are last in the running order:) in between Uganda and Zambia.”

Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.

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Politics

Political émigré who returned home to visit critically ill father arrested on fraudulent drug-related charges

The Azeri Times

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Azad Hasanov, Musavat party member and political exile living in Lithuania, has been arrested during a short return to his home country and charged with drug trafficking.

According to his lawyer, Osman Kazimov, the Khatai District Court sentenced him to four months in detention on drug-related charges. Under Article 234.4.3 (illegal manufacturing, purchase, storage, transportation, transfer or selling of sale of drugs), Hasanov faces between five and twelve years in prison.

On 11 October, Musavat deputy chairman Sakhavat Soltanli reported that Hasanov had disappeared and was likely arrested. He has been a member of the Surakhany Musavat branch since 2003 and had relocated to Lithuania in 2014, where he was granted political asylum.

He returned to Baku on 10 October, upon learning that his seriously ill father was about to die.

According to his spouse, Tarana Hasanova, he did not have any problems flying into Baku airport: “His father has been seriously ill and is about to die. He arrived on 10 October during the night. He did not have any problems crossing the border and stayed with his father until noon. He later went to the Mosque to pray. That’s where people in civilian clothes stopped him and forced him into a car. When his brother tried to help him, they pushed him aside and told him they are from the police.”

Hasanov’s fate recalls the case of lawyer Emin Aslan who was forced into a car by people in civilian clothes a few days after returning from his studies in the US. He later was found to be held at the Office for Combating Organized Crime, and spent 30 days in detention for failing to obey a police officer’s orders.

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Society

European film festival in Baku: a Dutch cat, a Hungarian horse and a ‘faceless’ French artist

The Azeri Times

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The 9th European Film Festival has officially begun in Baku.

The event is organised by the European Union in Azerbaijan and will end on 21 October, until which time the public is invited to view 19 European films free of charge.

Here are some of the films we recommend:

The documentary film Wild Amsterdam, accompanied by director Mark Verkerk and producer Ignas van Schaick, will be screened at the festival. The film centres around the animals of Amsterdam, but not in a way you might expect: the story is told from the perspective of a cat, who shows us how squirrels, pigeons and waterfowl live in Amsterdam’s canals and parks.

The directors say that the consultation with ecologists and other specialists took half a year by itself. The film is a viewing wonder, dynamic and modern. For example, one scene depicts the retrieval of bicycles from the bottom of the canal with the help of special machinery. The scene looks as if it has been cut right out of a thriller because of how it traumatises the crabs living on the bottom.

The film Kincsem – Bet on Revenge is from Hungary, and also concerns the fate of an animal – a racehorse who belongs to a broke aristocrat forced to earn money through racing. However, the film is not about horseracing, but rather about competition between members of high-class society in the Austrian Empire. The film’s action revolves around the young aristocrat who becomes involved in a dispute with an Austrian officer, whose daughter later falls for the main character.

Barbara, a film by Christian Petzold, is a drama shot in 2012 which takes viewers back to 1980 when Germany was still divided by the Berlin Wall. The main heroine of the film lives in the German Democratic Republic and dreams of leaving. Forced to work in the country and under constant surveillance, she methodically prepares her plan to escape. At first it seems everything will work out and that nobody can prevent her from leaving, including the all-powerful Stasi. However, an inconvenient and unexpected attachment to one of her colleagues jeopardises her escape.

Latvian film Dream Team 1935 by Aigars Grauba was also shot in 2012 and also offers an excursion into the past – to the pre-war period of 1935 when the first European Basketball Championship took place in Geneva. Participation in the championship was a great chance for national teams to go down in sports history. The Latvian team seizes the opportunity, though young trainer Baumanis soon comes to understand that it is far more important to overcome oneself than one’s enemy…

Halima’s Path is the work of Croatian director Arsen Anton Ostoyich, and is dedicated to one of the bloodiest wars of the second half of the 20th century – the war in former Yugoslavia. The action takes place in the post-war years in Bosnia. A woman by the name of Halima who lost her husband and son (though not biological) dreams of finding their remains in order to give them a proper burial. She is only able to do this with the help of DNA analysis. While she is able to find her husband’s remains, she finds it difficult to do so in the case of her son. Halima must then go through some hardship to find the biological mother of her son in order to find him.

The French film See You Up There is also devoted to war and its consequences. This time, the action takes place during World War I. The story begins in the final days of the war, when two young soldiers – an artist from a wealthy family, Edouard, and a former bank employee, Albert – are forced to go to their certain deaths on the orders of a malicious captain. Edouard, whose face has been disfigured, saves Albert, which firmly binds the two friends together: now Edouard is an ‘invisible’ artist, and Albert his impresario.

In addition to film screenings, the festival includes workshops and discussions with European directors.

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